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Science, the Rebel Educator: III

Science, the Rebel Educator: II (January-February, page 2) concluded with a reminder that we must, as parents, teachers and members of Sigma Xi, lead students to teach themselves: to directly observe and study nature in nature, admit and ameliorate collective ignorance, distinguish authority from hype, detect omission and distortion. No mandate differs more from this one than does the methodless invocation of the supernatural called "intelligent design."

Researchers discount gossip and rise above myth. Obliged to publish primary scientific literature, we write articles in peer-reviewed journals that "count." Most of us fiercely defend the integrity of scientific documentation. As the recent retraction of challenged work on stem cells reminds us, one who misrepresents or inaccurately reports results does not do "bad science;" he does no science at all. Our common charge is protection of science as the search for truth, boring or not.

Conversation, letters, Web data, newspaper articles and authoritative verbal argument are inadequate as scientific evidence. Professional scientists insist that primary science admits only one peculiar authority: bibliographic citation. As insightful and well-edited as they are, even articles published by scientists in our beloved American Scientist are inadmissible because our magazine is not primary literature. The specialized, reference-studded style of the typical scientific manuscript assures its rejection by editors of popular literature; generalist readers are not expected to find the excitement of research science amid the jargon. Casual science writing or conversation may lead to new experiments or apt criticism, but no amount of palaver replaces the primary journal article. Real science with limited, tentative results is provisional, skeptical and interactive. Arrogant, rigid authority is inimical to the scientific research we pledge to zealously pursue.

Dedication to "learning by doing," understanding nature directly from nature, contradicts almost every practice of science education. Most students design controlled experiments, collect data and analyze results only during Ph.D. training. In earlier education, the job is to "cover the material," pass the test and please the teacher.

These problems must exist in secondary science education all over the world. Yet  as far as I know, nowhere but in the United States do publishers' marketing departments make science-curriculum decisions, nor do educators derive pay from materials they officially recommend for sale! In this corrupt system our science-educator colleagues deserve no blame; they are victims. Other countries support ministries of education at the national level, where the task for which scientific-education experts are compensated is to ensure quality. Educators and teachers periodically removed and protected from routine duties work, in principle, for the public good.

Alternatives exist. The U.S. might imitate Japan's flourishing NISTEP (National Institute Science and Technology Education Program), where competent enthusiasts—teachers, engineers, scientists, artists and students—temporarily are paid to ensure the quality of peer-reviewed science materials, independent of their immediate salability. The superb post-Sputnik teaching films of live material and classroom units (funded by the American public at some 20 million dollars a year from 1965 to 1978) should be located, converted to digital media and distributed. A senior, apolitical quality appointment comparable in stature to the Librarian of Congress might assure a national effort of stability, continuity and oversight. Until the social structure of science education radically transforms, please expect our citizenry to perform abysmally in scientific competency comparisons. And expect Asian and European immigrants to continue to supply our scientific know-how.

How can Sigma Xi aid? You tell me!


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